This month, readers of Rolling Stone magazine could have been forgiven for thinking they had somehow been transported in a DeLorean back to the late 1960s. When the magazine slid through the letterbox, I had trouble believing my eyes. ‘Why the Beatles broke up’ ran the cover headline, alongside a shot of the Fab Four in their prime. I rubbed my eyes blearily, checked my legs in case they were encased in flares, and stared at the magazine again.
Nope, no mistake. It’s 2009 — and we’re still talking about the Beatles. Frankly, what does that say about the creaky old state of 2009? To backtrack for a moment, before infuriated Beatles fans write me letters in cat’s blood, let me stress: I don’t dislike the Beatles, even if they are responsible for giving birth to Oasis, and the Gallagher brothers’ interminable rows. Like most people who love music, but weren’t around during the Beatles’ actual time, I’ve a healthy respect for them: I should do, I hear echoes of them on most contemporary albums.
And there are some reasons to discuss them in 2009. First off, there are the digitally remastered editions of all the Beatles studio albums which, after a nearly 22-year wait, are being released on September 9. There’s the simultaneous video game release of The Beatles: Rock Band, which is backed by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison. Rumours are also growing that the Beatles back catalogue will soon be available on iTunes.
All these items are note-worthy. But does it mean the Beatles should be on the cover of the biggest music magazine in the world? No. That they made it smacks of desperation on the part of Rolling Stone. There’s a similar whiff of panic coming from EMI, which is promoting the Beatles remasters release. Industry gurus don’t know how to get people to buy records anymore — so they’re betting they might do it for nostalgia’s sake, both for the Beatles and for the time when they used to buy records.
Newspapers and magazines have a similar problem — with so many artists on the horizon, fame has become socialised: everyone’s getting a piece of it. The public are off chasing their Grizzly Bears, Animal Collectives and Frightened Rabbits — and that’s just the zoo section of the music market. Though they might not admit it, many of the punters going to Electric Picnic this weekend won’t be too sure of who about 90 per cent of the bands are. How could they be? Even those in the music industry these days have trouble keeping pace.
There are no music idols anymore, which means the media and the music industry are reduced to reselling and rehyping dead ones. Clinging to big names like the Beatles will win them a few more crumbs from the advertising table, for sure. But for readers already disillusioned by the endless Jonas Brothers covers (for which, in an unprecedented move, the editor apologised recently), such movements may work to their long-term disadvantage. In attempting to appeal to everyone, Rolling Stone may find they appeal to no one.
Vibe and Blender magazine have already gone to the wall. Like the bands it documents, Rolling Stone may have to accept that in a more diffuse, difficult market, it has to become smaller and more niche — if it is to survive.